Exile, immigration, departure… the theme of absence from home dominates not only the novels of Edem Awumey, it has taken over his life – and he embraces it. This successful, young French-language author was protégé, in 2006-2007, to highly acclaimed Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, no stranger to exile himself.
Born (in 1975) and raised in Togo, a West African nation about the same size as Croatia or Latvia, Edem – who is often known simply by his given name – has spent much of his life abroad, mainly in Paris and now in Quebec. He explains that even as a child, he was aware of the trials of exile. “I had an uncle who left [Togo] to go and live in Europe. Sadly, he died there. So at that young age, exile seemed to me something tragic.” But, as he grew into late adolescence, he became aware of another side of exile – its attraction to those beginning their adult lives (in a country which has gross domestic product per capita of US$1,100 a year, compared to $49,800 in the U.S. and $35,500 in France). “A lot of young people in Togo talked about going abroad to live, to make a new life, in the United States or Europe.”
Since 2000, Edem has himself lived abroad, in France for five years and then in French-speaking parts of Canada. In both he has devoted himself to his two passions, academia and teaching, on the one hand, and writing, on the other. The author of four novels, he has won prizes and drawn much praise from critics, particularly with his second novel, Les Pieds Sales, the story of a refugee turned taxi-driver, living in Paris. Shortlisted for France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, the novel – written during his mentoring year – placed Edem, by then living in Quebec, among the French-speaking world’s most notable young novelists. “I was really surprised when Les Pieds sales was nominated for the Prix Goncourt in 2009,” he says. “That little nomination changed many things for me in Canada. Before that, my writings were read in a small academic circle. Being on that list for three weeks suddenly widened my circle of readers. It is rare for a Quebec author, an immigrant no less, to appear on the Prix Goncourt list.”
Until now, Edem has explored in depth the world of “Francophonie”, the parts of the world where French is spoken. While there are over 30 countries and regions where French is the main or “co-official” language, Edem says that during his childhood, he thought of three places where French was spoken: French-speaking Africa, Paris and Quebec. He has now lived in all three, ending up in the one that he always thought of as the most stubbornly Francophone, a region defending French against all-conquering English, like Obelix defending Gaul against the Romans.
But life, like novels, has its ironic twists of fate. Living in Gatineau (a city near Ottawa), Edem has begun to discover the English-speaking world. First, he got a job teaching French to English-speakers in Ottawa. Then, Les Pieds Sales was translated (by Lazer Lederhendler) and published in English in 2011 as Dirty Feet. The novel was warmly received by Canada’s English-language newspapers. It was also nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, one of the richest prizes in the literary world. And Edem discovered, in Canadian cities like Toronto, a strong curiosity and interest in foreign cultures. “In the English-speaking world, things happen at a different pace – faster!” says Edem. This erudite writer, used to living simultaneously in two worlds – whether Africa and France, or Africa and Quebec – seems on the point of entering a third. He cannot reveal much, but there are discussions under way for an English translation of his third novel, Rose déluge; And, in 2012, he taught French-language literature at McGill (English-language) University in Montréal.
“I need to have a bigger reading public,” Edem says, possibly dreaming of all those potential readers across the border in New York City and elsewhere.
And, of course, he’s still writing. “I’ve recently completed my fourth novel,” he says.
“Rose déluge was published in 2011. I like to do a book every two years. I have a lot to say. I know people who publish a book every year or every six months, but that’s too fast for me.” The plot of his fourth novel, Explication de la nuit, to be published in October 2013 by les Éditions du Boréal in Montréal, takes place in Quebec and in Africa. “There are two timeframes and two spaces,” Edem says. “Canada in the present, Africa in the past.”
Togo is still home for him. Were he single, he says, he might return. But he’s married now (his wife is also from Togo), and his sons, aged two and four, are growing up with two cultures, African and North American, which Edem sees as a huge advantage.
For Edem, exile has become a way of life.